Johnny Depp as "Whitey" Bulger in Black Mass

Film Review | Black Mass Struggles in the Gangster Shadow of Everything Scorsese

Black Mass  has all the hallmarks of being a big budget, respectable gangster epic. All star cast?- check. Based on a decade spanning true story?- check. A star transforming themselves physically?- for better or worse, check. On paper it seems like an easy sell.

Black Mass starring Johnny Depp is in cinemas on Friday 27th November. -
Black Mass starring Johnny Depp is in cinemas on Friday 27th November. image via fatmovieguy

The plot concerns itself with James ‘Whitey’ Bulger; (Johnny Depp) a Boston gangster who fed the FBI information on his enemies in exchange for effective immunity. The result was that his gang, The Southies, were given free reign in their own criminal dealings. Gradually, Whitey’s brother; a successful politician (Benedict Cumberbatch doing a bizarre version of the already strange Boston accent) and his FBI agent informee Connolly (Joel Edgerton) realise that, by protecting him, they’re shackled to a madman.

It’s impossible not to talk about Johnny Depp so let’s get this out of the way up front. This is his best performance in years. Now if that seems like high praise just think back on what he’s done for the past decade. The main problem is that every time he’s on screen he’s an obviously handsome man playing dress up. His bald cap and distracting blue contact lenses can’t cover the fact that you’re looking at a star. He never quite disappears into the character. The last time he seemed to leave the house without a wacky costume he made Transcendence  so maybe them’s the breaks if you want Depp in your movie.
Talking performances; the standout from the supporting cast is an underused Jesse Plemons (TV’s Breaking Bad, Fargo) as one of the small time goons in Whitey’s orbit. Joel Edgerton is comically sleazy as the scaldiest FBI agent in the world. Every question is met with pursed lips and a shrug. He is so obviously corrupt that eventually his scenes descend into enjoyable farce as he attempts to plamás his way out of his web of lies.
The direction from Scott Cooper is, in a way, admirably unflashy. It keeps the period song soundtracked montages to a minimum and eschews the common visual gimmicks. It’s not necessarily a bad instinct. With the shadow of Scorsese hanging over this genre why even compete? At times you wish they would jazz it up just a little bit, though. It’s often lit beautifully by Masonobu Takayanagi (Spotlight, Silver Linings Playbook) but the camera feels like it’s just moving for coverage and nothing else. The result is something very glossy but not particularly dramatic. This lack of oomph affects the film as a whole.
The biggest problem is that in Black Mass‘ attempt to fit the post-Goodfellas mould, the filmmakers seem to use the logic of ‘It may be predictable but at least it’s long‘. From the premise you can guess how it will all pan out. Being kind you can look at this as classic tragedy. Being unkind you might look at it as boring. Just once it would be nice if a film like this kept you guessing. It doesn’t help that during its long ramble the film has nothing interesting to say. Any attempt at insight falls flat. For example; apparently cops and robbers aren’t all that different (Oooh). In the end it has nothing to say about its subject other than that he was a criminal through and through.
This film acts less like Bulger himself and more like the Corleone family; It desperately wants to be respectable. This means a mostly entertaining two hours with a few stand out moments. If it hadn’t wanted so bad to go straight it might have been a lot more.
Black Mass is in cinemas on Friday 27th November. Check out the trailer below.
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Featured Image credit:forbes